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Creating Characters – The Historical Route

May 24, 2011

How do I create characters? Now that is a question.

The answer is: currently, I don’t. Currently, there are no characters running around my head. There are a few blurred shapes sitting on the rocks in my mind but they’re not stepping into the light so to speak. I feel like the un-cool kid at high school that none of the other kids want to speak to. No characters make eye contact let alone demand I report their story.

Frustrating? Incredibly. I’m sure you have all experienced this at some point. Well, I hope I am not alone.

So I’m writing this blog on the times when characters found my head a groovy space to hang out in, hoping I might entice them back.

The most recent source of inspiration I’ve found for characters is from history books. I like looking around the edges of the ‘big’ historical figures and finding the so-called ‘underdogs’ of history. I like watching a film based on the life of someone who actually lived and finding a supporting character with a story that needs telling or reading a non-fiction book and having someone peer out from between the lines.

I feel these people deserve their story telling too. So I’ll get the plot of their story from the few biographical materials available and then I’ll fill in the quirks and traits of their character based on a concrete knowledge of their story.

Once I’ve selected the protagonist for my story in this manner then comes the ‘fattening out’ process aka ‘the fun part’. This is the part where you make the characters your own. History books, for the most part, only provide a one-dimensional scope of a figure. It is the writer’s responsibility to ‘fatten’ the character out. Providing these unrelatable figures with ‘human’ characteristics – what colour socks do they wear? What do they eat for breakfast? What is their morning routine? You get the picture.

I find this creative exploration of historical characters most rewarding for my inner history buff – I get to combine my love of writing and historical research. My aim when using figures from history for fictional purposes is to write about them in the most respectful way possible while achieving my fictional aims. I like to remain true to the very heart of their character where possible and not distort their story too much with fictional tools.

They also provide a wealth of other aspects of their lives to explore in order to retain a sense of the time period they inhabited – what would they have worn? Where would they have lived? What did they do in their spare time?

So why not give someone who has been pushed to the background of history a voice through your writing?

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4 Comments
  1. May 24, 2011 8:35 am

    You may have heard of me on your travels through history. I was the baker from Pudding Lane who went out for a quick snog with a ladyfriend whilst the bread was in the oven and…
    Now there’s a story for you.

  2. May 24, 2011 7:40 pm

    That sounds like a great idea, I remember one such book that I loved as a boy. The story was about ‘TROY’, told in first person by one of Hector’s and Paris’s younger brothers, who greatly admired his hero and big brother, Hector.
    GO WITH IT…

  3. May 24, 2011 8:44 pm

    I love this idea of using historical figures for inspiration. Poets do this sometimes, too. I’m thinking especially of Julianna Baggott’s collection: Lizzie Borden in Love.

    Inspiration truly comes in the most interesting places, huh? That’s why I always suggest reading widely. The more you read (even out of your genre), the more you grow as a writer and the more ideas you get.

    Thanks! -Miss GOP

  4. Zoraida Cabrera permalink
    May 25, 2011 2:35 pm

    Many times when I read a story I stop to wonder about the supporting rolls too (sometimes in history books, sometimes in fiction).
    I actually recently started a new story and I began to look into the life of a “minor character” because my main character was boring me. My “minor character” is now the narrator and I absolutely love him.

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